Turkey sees surge in Islamic vote

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The Independent Online
THE surprising extent of Islamist gains in Turkey emerged yesterday as a surge of votes swept Welfare Party candidates into power in big city suburbs and Kurdish and Turkish towns of eastern Turkey.

Even the Islamists' long-trumpeted 'reconquest of Constantinople' seemed likely in Istanbul. With 70 per cent of votes from Sunday's nation-wide local elections counted in Turkey's biggest city, Welfare Party candidate Tayyip Erdogan was in the lead.

'This just goes to show that the people can beat the media,' Mr Erdogan said, referring to a virulent anti-Welfare campaign in the secularist Turkish television and press.

The media had criticised Mr Erdogan's record of illegal building activity. Turks also find the party suspect due to the anti-Western party leadership's links with Saudi Arabia and a failure to define how its 'Just Order' policy fits in with Islamic Sharia Law.

But Turkey is no Algeria or Egypt, despite its nervously secular armed forces. A majority of its 60 million people believe in a separation of mosque and state, including a fair number of Welfare Party supporters.

As a result, the Welfare is still only the third party overall in Turkey. It polled about 18 per cent of the total vote, behind 21 per cent for the centre-right Motherland and 23 per cent for the ruling conservative True Path Party, a score that seemed to secure the medium-term future of Prime Minister Tansu Ciller.

Turkey's Islamist movement is also very broad. A Welfare Party candidate came within a whisker of winning in Ankara, the capital chosen 70 years ago by Kemal Ataturk as a symbol of the new Turkish Republic founded on deliberately Western, secular lines. But he only did well by breathing not a word about Islam in his promotional pamphlet. He preferred to stress secular administrative competence.

A majority of Istanbul's huge concrete suburbs seemed in the Welfare Party's pocket as well. Most have been built by conservative rural immigrants who add 350,000 people a year to the city's population, now thought to number 10 million.

The new inhabitants have already conquered and smothered the multi-ethnic atmosphere of old Constantinople. Just 60,000 ethnic Armenians, 23,000 ethnic Jews and 2,000 ethnic Greek heirs of Byzantium are left in a city that even 40 years ago was still marked by its non-Muslim minorities.

All visitors remark on a rise in the proportion of women in headscarves, some of them covered from head to toe in black Iranian-style cloaks. But it is also easy to exaggerate the 'threat' from the Islamic movement. Only about 10 per cent of smaller mayorships were won by the Welfare Party in Turkey overall.

The Islamists have profited from selfish splits among the corrupt and unimaginative mainstream left- and right- wing parties. The Welfare Party has also had to risk splits with its own fundamentalist minority as it bent over backwards to broaden voter appeal beyond its range for the past two decades of five to 15 per cent.

(Photograph omitted)